Rose’s Turn: The Power of Painting with Pink

Ah, the time-honored summer art exhibition: when art galleries and dealers in big cities try to keep themselves from falling asleep out of boredom, waiting for customers to drop by.  The reader may not be aware, but from a business perspective, the selling of art is often as seasonal as is the selling of other commodities, from bikinis to snowplows. Just as art dealers in vacation areas tend to languish during the period between the end and the start of their area’s high season, so too galleries in urban areas often suffer from the doldrums during the summer vacations of their regular clientele.

To counteract this, a summer exhibition is a great way to generate some interest in what might otherwise be a period of lethargy.  The Royal Academy in London, for example, started hosting its annual Summer Exhibition way back in 1769, which over the centuries has proven to be a hugely profitable venture not only for the Royal Academy, but for the artists exhibited there and the galleries nearby.  The Academy gets a percentage of the proceeds of any of the works sold at the show, and the London art dealers rather than packing up and fleeing to the Rivera in search of their clients, will typically host their own, brief shows around the same time, so that potential collectors can drop by and see their works, as well.

Such is the case, I imagine, with the brief run of “Everything’s Rosy” at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown, which opened this past Friday.  The exhibition features a selection of works by a number of artists, all working in very different styles and with no thematic program, yet all are connected by their use of the color rose – or pink, depending on how you look at it, which of course for my Catholic readers brings back the old canard about the color of the priestly vestments for Gaudete and Laetare Sunday.  Appropriately enough, the opening reception for the show was accompanied by cocktails made with strawberries, rose sparkling wine, and Saint Germain.  My charming companion and I noted the refreshing recipe for future use, as we looked at the many types of painting on display, and chatted with one of the (always very gracious) gallery staff.

Pink is a color which today we often associate with the feminine – blue for boys, pink for girls – even though for centuries, that formula was reversed.  In an article about child-rearing in the venerable “Ladies’ Home Journal” published in June 1918, we read that when choosing a color for a baby’s clothing, outside of easy-to-bleach white, “the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”  One may also note that in traditional Catholic images of the Madonna and Child, the Virgin Mary is almost always depicted wearing blue, and there are many examples of the Christ Child wearing pink.

It is the boldness of pink as a color, much like the use of red, which tends to attract the eye; such a powerful shade can often completely dominate an image, unless the artist is careful.  What is appealing about the Susan Calloway show is how the selection of works speaks to a variety of tastes, but nothing hits you over the head with “PINK”, like walking into a child’s bedroom.  Yes, there are a few very charming, dare one say “pretty” images, but there are also some bold, textural pieces as well, which use pink in different ways.

Take for example an arresting painting by David Ivan Clark titled “Untitled (Still #69)”, a very horizontal work which features a gradation of color from pale gray to puce to black.  There is nothing “Hello Kitty” about this picture, and despite its substantial horizontality, it is a decidedly masculine-feeling piece.  Another work in the show, “Departures” by Janet Fry Rogers, features gleaming squares of silver leaf atop an underpainting of a deep, hot pink, reminding the viewer of the techniques employed in Medieval and Early Renaissance panel painting.  If, like this scrivener, you have certain magpie tendencies, you cannot help but be enthralled by the piece, so arresting is the juxtaposition of the bright undertone with the burnished, gleaming surface.

Arguably the star of the show is “Magnolia Swimwater” by Allison Hall Copley, a very large work on canvas which greets you as you enter the gallery.  Interestingly enough, the piece is framed, rather than stretched, leaving the unfinished edges of the piece exposed to look almost like rag paper.  The composition is a huge swirl of colors, a shower of bright pinks, oranges and blues against the plain white canvas.  Copley gives a wonderful sense of movement and flight to the painting, like a host of flower petals being caught up in a whirlwind and falling to earth again.

Although these three highlighted works are examples of different types of abstraction, those with an aversion to the non-representational need not fear. “Everything’s Rosy” additional features a number of charming, representational pieces, from artists such as the extremely talented landscape artist Ed Cooper, among others.  This is truly one of those bright and cheerful shows which has something for everyone, not only asking the visitor to consider pink in different ways, but also proving to be quite refreshing during yet another oppressively Washingtonian July.

“Everything’s Rosy” at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown runs from July 11th to July 22nd.

The wonderfully-textured "Departures" by Janet Fry Rogers,  looking great against the textured white brick walls at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown

The wonderfully textured “Departures” by Janet Fry Rogers,
looking great against the textured white brick walls at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown

 

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Darkness and Light in the Art Market

For all of its flash and press, I’ve always found the Contemporary Art world to be rather a dark, inscrutable place. The art market is made up of many component strands, of which Contemporary Art is easily the brashest component.  Modern and Impressionist Art is still doing quite well of course, as last night’s sale in London of a Monet from his water lily series for $54 million shows.  It’s hard to imagine that 50 years from now, our grandchildren will look at this Monet alongside a work by someone like contemporary British artist Tracy Emin, and see them as being of equal artistic value.  Yet the art market itself is significantly changing, and this is both a problem and an opportunity.

It’s not hard to understand why, if you’re interested in making a lucrative career for yourself in the art business, that Contemporary Art is increasingly viewed as the place to be.  Between July 2012 and July 2013, worldwide sales of Contemporary Art hit one billion pounds for the first time.  It’s also the place to be if you just so happen to be a speculative investor.

At the top end of the market, Contemporary Art regularly commands very high prices, so that only the extremely rich can afford the buy-in for what in many cases is more about gambling than collecting.  True, some of those paying tens of millions of dollars for something which the average person looks at and scratches his head, rather than admires, may actually find meaning in what they are buying, even where beauty itself is noticeably absent.  However more often than not, such collectors are primarily interested in seeing art as a way to move money around more easily, and those who help them complete these transactions understand and facilitate this.

We need to remember of course that the art market is first and foremost a business environment, not a charitable institution.  If someone chooses to pay an astronomical sum for a work by contemporary sculptor Anish Kapoor, the creator of the broken-rollercoaster-enveloping-the-Seattle-Space-Needle sculpture known as “Orbit” for the 2012 London Olympic Park, the market is more than happy to oblige.  It is not the market’s job to point out that a fool and his money are soon parted.

The tough aspect of this, for those interested in the art world, is in separating speculation from appreciation.  A recent article in The New York Times probes this point, noting the huge chasm which currently exists in the area of Contemporary Art.  As a British art investment expert points out in the piece, the fixation on sales figures helps perpetuate the perception that art collecting is supposed to be about accumulating profit over the pursuit of knowledge and the appreciation of the beautiful. “Rich collectors compete in auctions to prove how much money they have. The rest of us should just have a discussion about the art we like.”

Fortunately, fans of all things old increasingly find themselves members of more intimate clubs.  In the field of Decorative Arts, for example, collectors and aficionados are becoming not only better-educated about the things they love, but they are being drawn more closely together because there are fewer of them.  As more and more media attention is siphoned off by the Contemporary Art trade, serious collectors interested in beautiful things find themselves freer to go about doing what they love.  Recently an article in The Art Newspaper covering the Art Antiques Fair in London hit the nail on the head when it comes to understanding this change, noting that “anything but contemporary art is being squeezed more and more because of the greed-inspiring sums of money fetched by the contemporary,” noting that attending events like the Art Antiques Fair is a pleasure because one is attending “an event that is genuinely to do with collecting rather than interior decorating or investing.”

What’s interesting to observe about this phenomenon is that it is bringing back collecting to where it began, in a sort of wheat from the chaff moment.  Chinese scholars, Roman senators, and Medieval princes were not interested in having unique works of art and art objects to hand because they intended to sell them on at a profit later, like flipping a house in a gentrifying neighborhood and then moving along.  Rather, they collected things to hold on to them forever, because they meant something more than the price tag which the objects bore.  Today, even as those interested in art as profitable investment are now going in one direction, those interested in art as a physical embodiment of intangible goods such as transcendent beauty, human ingenuity, and so on, are returning to their roots.

For the vast majority of us, the first and best rule of both studying and collecting art, has always been to focus on the things you love.  Learn as much about them as you can, so that whether it’s pre-Revolutionary Sèvres porcelain or early 20th century watercolors of the Scottish Highlands, you will not only enjoy them more, but you will benefit from meeting and forming friendships with others who enjoy them as well, educating one another about the finer points of technique, style, history, and so on.  Leave the business of art business to those primarily interested in playing speculative games in the dark, rather than in illuminating our culture.

"Water Lilies" (1906) by Claude Monet  Sold at Sotheby's London for $54 million last evening

“Water Lilies” (1906) by Claude Monet
Sold at Sotheby’s London for $54 million last evening

 

Take Up Your Cross and Suffer Through This Exhibition

If you happen to be traveling on the Tube, London’s subway network, during this season of Lent, you may come across some rather provocative billboard images of Jesus on the train platforms.  These posters are advertising an exhibition of the work of a number of contemporary artists called “Stations of the Cross”.  While the pieces are designed to grab the viewer’s attention, in the end one has to reject their premise, and question why a Christian church would host such an exhibition.

Marylebone is the home of the BBC’s Broadcasting House, Sherlock Holmes, and Madonna, among others; this scrivener lived there during graduate school.  It is an area consisting primarily of rather large Georgian and Regency-era terraced houses; among the churches in this former village, now very much a part of central London, the most prominent is the Anglican church of St. Marylebone, built between 1813-1817.  This is the venue for the “Stations of the Cross” show, and one wonders what former members of this church – Charles Wesley, for one – would have made of it.

In looking over the images chosen for the exhibition, some are well-executed, thought-provoking examples of contemporary artists considering the story of Christ’s Passion. There is a cleverly telling piece in which, instead of placing Christ before Pilate or the Sanhedrin, He is stood before a panel on a show like “American Idol”, to judge whether He lives or dies. It is not hard to imagine that He would be condemned by our 21st century pop culture just as He was by 1st century culture.  Similarly, there is a beautifully executed, geometric rendering of the Crown of Thorns that one could see being used as, for example, a stamping on the cover of a hymnal or prayer book.

The majority of the images however, are simply poorly-executed, head-scratchers, or just plain dumb. For example, several of the artists have chosen to make allusions to the practice of capital punishment, and as someone opposed to its use, I understand the point they are trying to make.  Yet putting Jesus in an electric chair denies the lengthy suffering that was crucifixion, which medically speaking is death brought about by asphyxiation. One wonders whether they would portray Jesus being aborted as a baby, or euthanized as an old man, but one can imagine why not.

Another artist has employed altered images of the famous Jacques-Louis David painting of the French revolutionary Marat, dead in his bathtub. Given that Marat was hardly a Christian, – and that’s putting it mildly – it makes no sense why his image would be the basis for this manipulation. Jesus was not put to death for whoring about while writing awful poetry. And then there is a photograph called “Phat Jesus”, which is simply tired old pornographic trash emanating from a diseased mind, the sort of thing that we’ve all seen before in supposedly edgy art magazines.

The apparent moral problem in criticizing this display is that the impetus for the event is a good one. The exhibition hopes to raise funds in the ongoing search for a man who has been missing for ten years, and to raise awareness of a group dedicated to helping find missing people.  Dare one criticize an event that hopes to achieve something good?

Unfortunately, yes, but it must be said, not really because of the artists themselves. The fact that moral relativist artists can create and put on such a show should not surprise anyone: blasphemy is a cliché that has been worked to death since the dawn of Modern Art, for the simple reason that Christians are an easy target, and tend not to fight back. The real issue is why a Christian church would agree to host this exhibition in the first place, particularly during Lent. I will leave that to the reader to decide.

The best that can be said for this exhibition, it seems to me, is that if you are in London and want to engage in a penitential act during this season of Lent, go along and see how much the world continues to hate Jesus. He told us this would happen of course (St. John 15:18), and in an age which is becoming increasingly hostile to Christians, it is perhaps not a bad thing to be reminded of that fact. Clearly this is something that the powers that be at St. Marylebone forgot.

"View of St. Marylebone Church" by Thomas Shepherd (1828)

“View of St. Marylebone Church” by Thomas Shepherd (1828)